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Sunday
May232010

Treat your music like NPR

This week 93.9 FM WNYC, the New York affiliate of National Public Radio, is holding its thrice yearly pledge drive.  Check out their pledge page here: http://bit.ly/9msbLd

Its pledge drive got me thinking about how similar it is to music - NPR relies overwhelmingly on voluntary donations from its listeners, many of whom listen without donating.  Today, music can easily be downloaded for free as easily as turning the dial to 93.9 FM.  What is NPR’s secret sauce?  And, how can musicians use it to make money and gain supporters?

The answer is with what NPR rewards its supporters.  Not only is its programming consistently of excellent quality, which makes selling easier, but it offers many different types of gifts/rewards in exchange for donations.  The classic reward, perhaps its most popular, is the WNYC canvas tote bag.  Walking around my neighborhood over the past few days I’ve noticed the great number of people walking around with these bags.  They connote many things: an affiliation with an intelligent brand, willingness to donate money to a good cause, perhaps “hipness”.  Would your fans be proud to display their affiliation with you?  Do they already want to, but don’t have a way?

What is previously a private transaction - donating money - is now worn as a badge of pride.  And because of the way that NPR frames its pledge drive, invoking how it relies on its listeners to keep running and how its listeners are integral to its success, donors get that warm & fuzzy feeling of participating in a social good.  By focusing on people’s desire to feel like an important part of something great, musicians can bring their fans into the fold and offer them ways to meaningfully help through their money.  The reward is not the music - that’s already coming for free, like NPR’s broadcast signal - but in the tangible items that can be worn as a badge of pride and belonging.

Lastly, NPR tailors the on-air promotion of gifts based on the program.  Listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s music program, which focuses on standards/jazz, on Saturday, he was highlighting a collection of Frank Sinatra CDs offered by NPR as a gift.  Earlier in the week during Leonard Lopate’s show he promoted a book about the markets of New York during an interview with a guest who writes about markets for The New Yorker.  Similarly, musicians should tailor their rewards to their audience - tote bags may work for some, not others.

 

Matthew Wolsky is a recent Master of Arts - Music Business graduate from New York University.  His thesis concerned the connections between artists and fans, and how to make these connections financially and creatively more rewarding.  He recently launched his blog at http://matthewwolsky.com/

Reader Comments (12)

I think is a really outstanding recipe for Alienating Your Fanbase With Maximum Effort.

You do a beautiful/poetic job distilling the massive gap to massive understatement, though: "...tote bags may work for some, not others." I'm not being sarcastic, that's as clean as a haiku.

I'm also not being sarcastic about this being a tremendously bad idea for most artists reading this. There's a very clear roadmap for getting money and support from your fanbase -- it's called "Releasing Music."

Justin, what do you have to say about an artist like Amanda Palmer? She's been outspoken about how she made no money from Roadrunner by simply "Releasing Music" and instead came up with creative ways to reward her fans and earn cash - like her Twitter-fueled T-shirt creation/sale and auction, etc.? If you missed it, read here: http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2009/06/amanda-palmer.html

Also, in a recent interview (http://techdirt.com/articles/20100521/1448399532.shtml) Amanda realized that she needs to shamelessly ask her fans to support her directly, and that her only regret is that she didn't realize it SOONER! Check below the third section in bold for what I'm talking about specifically.

I hope you see this and let me know what you think.

Man, I think even Amanda Palmer might be getting sick of hearing about Amanda Palmer at this point.

Music in exchange for money is not the same as a pledge drive. If you can't produce enough material to sustain yourself, that means you're not productive enough to sustain yourself. (Tautology is a great way to clarify these things.) Crowd-sourcing funding for your next release = also not the same as a pledge drive. That's still a transaction, an exchange of value.

Amanda Palmer's secret sauce is identical to NPR's: captive, appreciative audience. Most people reading MTT are still working towards that goal. I do feel, strongly, that this kind of strategy would be a mistake when you can be selling music to raise money instead.

I'm also wrong, on a very consistent basis. I could be wrong about this.

In a perfect world, artists would be afforded the financial freedoms to pursue the creation of their artwork uninterrupted. Unfortunately, the majority of consumers who obtain music choose to do so without paying.

This is the reality that the music industry must face. Until something happens to change consumers' willingness to pay for recorded music (whether it be a new digital music service, some sort of government-mandated blanket licensing, or a miracle), we have to figure out inventive ways to maximize some sort of value to our target demographic - whether that be selling specialized Deluxe packages (ie. Coheed and Cambria's "Year of the Black Rainbow" package w/ a 350+ pg novel, or Broken Bell's Music Box), selling badass merch, or launching creative competitions like Amanda Palmer.

Or you could focus on creating groundbreaking, passionate, soul-moving music and hope that it somehow reaches its perfect demographic and inspires it to the point of financial support. That solution may work for some- but I believe this is incredibly rare, if existent at all. That being said, I'd be very interested in hearing about successful cases, in the past few years, of artists who have been able to do this without "selling out" in any way, shape, or form (which is what it appears you are against). So please, prove me wrong! I could use some inspiration, myself..

Just because an artist has to come up with creative ways of selling their product to fans does not make the music any less genuine. However, I DO think that artists should be able to focus on their music-- save the strategic marketing for music industry professionals like me, and Matthew!

May 25 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

"Crowd-sourcing funding for your next release = also not the same as a pledge drive. That's still a transaction, an exchange of value."

I totally disagree, and this idea is perhaps at the heart of my original entry. To me, they are in essence the same thing. A lot of people pool their relatively small contributions in order to collectively enjoy the output. And, perhaps my original message got misinterpreted along the way, but I'm not condoning artists stopping everything and having some kind of PBS telethon, but instead incorporating the idea of rewards and inclusion into how they try and earn money off of their art.

Finally, if Amanda Palmer has become a tiresome subject, there are plenty of other artists doing it similar ways. The "In Defense of 1,000 True Fans" series on this site chronicles plenty of them- Ellis Paul's great story comes to mind.

@ Katie - On Musician Coaching, Rick interviewed the manager of STS9 (http://musiciancoaching.com/music-career/community-vs-audience-sts9/). Have you ever heard of them? Probably not. Check out the interview. There are bands playing at this level all over the world. Look at the artists consistently filling 500+ person venues around the world. There are more artists doing this than people think.

@Katie

Were you talking to me or the author of the post?

"Selling out" is not a bad thing to me -- that's the whole fucking point. SELL OUT the venue, SELL OUT your merch, SELL OUT every copy of your album.

I just think this pledge drive idea is tacky, cheap. Sell music, if that's what you do. Real simple.

@Matthew

I appreciate the clarification, because that's more or less exactly how I read this article -- glad to be corrected.

@Matthew you make some great points here, and I agree that artists should be thinking of ways to reward their fans. However, I don't think being a musician is like NPR. The majority of musicians do not operate as non-profit organizations, they are for-profit businesses. They are in the game to make a decent living selling products (music/merch) and services (unique & memorable experiences).

If a fan pays ahead to help fund an artist's upcoming album, and gets a free t-shirt and a signed copy of the album for doing so, then that is exactly what they are paying for; a t-shirt and a signed album. With the added reward of feeling good about helping someone in need, which is the only aspect of the transaction that I see as similar to a donation.

I see the connection you are trying to make, and I understand why you would do that....but in my mind...crowdsourcing is getting your fans to invest in you, not collecting charitable donations. They give an artist upfront cash because they believe that artist has the necessary skills and tools to create something truly great, and that they will see a positive return on their investments (t-shirt, meet&greet, free concert tickets, whatever).

Here's the thing with the pledge drive versus selling music. Pledge drive is a CD for $100, music sales is a CD for $10. If people are willing to pay $100 for a CD, you should take it. But asking a fan for $100 for a CD, ouch. Yeah, alienate your fanbase with that one. Much less if your website was continuously broadcasting, "I need your $100, just $0.30 a day to make our goal of $100,000 so I can ask for it again in three months." Letting someone donate money is fine. I do a series of free releases at Silber & some of them have gotten over 10,000 downloads while the donations have yet to make it to $100. I think for artists/labels under the 10,000 unit sales range (which was the 50,000 unit sold range probably as little as five years ago), the donation model only works for bands that are doing a little lying ("We got $50,000 in donations!" "How much came from your mom?" "Only $40,000! My Aunt gave the other $10,000!").

@Chris "The majority of musicians do not operate as non-profit organizations, they are for-profit businesses"

True- but the employees of non-profits still get a salary. It's not like Brian Lehrer is a volunteer- he makes about $200,000 a year.

via http://aworldinitsplaces.wordpress.com/2009/06/28/sunshine-on-non-profit-salaries/

Very interesting post, Matthew - really got me thinking, thanks!

I think the key is applying the overall CONCEPT (not getting hung up on a literal comparison to a non-profit fund drive).

In fact, since music is readily available for free, whether we like it or not, what would be wrong with positioning an artists music as being available ONLY by donation, in return for different gifts (CD, posters, shirts, etc), based on various donation levels?

Definitely gonna ponder this one...would love to hear more perspectives...

May 29 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

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